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Lawmakers: Times are tough, all must pitch in

District 11A Rep. Torrey Westrom (left) and District 11 Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen (right) answered questions during a town hall-style meeting in Morris on Friday. The stop was one of six the lawmakers made in the district to discuss progress in the Legislature, primarily concerning the economy.

By Tom Larson

Sun Tribune

Two District 11 state legislators made their annual town meeting tour Friday. While the discussions touched on many topics, the general tone was simple: Prepare to take a financial hit and look for ways to be more efficient with less money.

District 11 Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen and District 11A Rep. Torrey Westrom stopped in Morris as part of a six-city tour through the district.

The economy, obviously, was at the base of almost all the discussions and questions posed by the audience. The state is, officially, facing a $4.8 billion budget deficit for the 2010-2011 biennium, but the consensus is that a March 3 budget forecast update will reveal a much larger problem, perhaps in the $6 billion to $7 billion range.

Westrom called the budget deficit "a systemic problem, a massive problem" that will require all citizens and institutions to make sacrifices.

Among Westrom's talking points for this legislative session is his proposal to shift prisoners from the state-run Moose Lake facility to the privately owned and operated prison in Appleton. Getting state officials to work and partner with a private prison is a significant obstacle, but Westrom said it could save about $12 million per year in per diem expenses each biennium, and a total of $90 million in bonding by not having to build new facilities.

It's a move that could signal a "turf war" detente and spur more efficient delivery of services, he said.

"That' the kind of common sense solutions that we need," Westrom said.

Ingebrigtsen is set to lead with the legislation in the Senate.

"If we can save $100 million, why wouldn't we do it?" he said.

The audience discussion also touched on property taxes, equitable tax rules, levy limits for local governments, education, ethanol, Stevens County's proposed jail and building project and the federal stimulus package.

Ingebrigtsen said state government doesn't like to tell local governments how to operate, and yet noted that in 22 of the last 30 years the state has imposed levy limits on local governments. A start on solving the problems can be found by each unit of government taking control of its situation.

"The state is not the only one that has to control spending," Ingebrigtsen said. "Counties do, too, as well as cities and townships."

One way to make that easier, he said, is reducing the unfunded mandates states require of local governments.

Westrom pointed to Gov. Tim Pawlenty's proposal to give local governments the power to "opt out" of mandates that are believed to be unreasonable.

"It would be good to see which mandates are onerous, which to opt out on, and then we can make a call," Westrom said.

The lawmakers took an informal poll of the audience on the state accepting the stimulus package money earmarked for the state, which is believed to total between $2 billion and $4 billion. The voice vote was about 50-50.

Hancock Mayor Bruce Schmidgall related his city's dealings with using federal funds to build sanitation ponds. The project came to about $3.3 million and took significantly more time because of federal regulations tied to the money.

Hancock had to pay about $1.5 million of the project, and it might have been completed for roughly that amount had the federal red tape not been a concern.

"If we would have bonded it ourselves, we probably could have done it cheaper with less hassle," Schmidgall said. "There's so much waste (with federal money involved)."

Several audience members cautioned the lawmakers about making substantial cuts in education.

Tamy Reese of the Morris Area School District's ECFE department, cited statistics that each dollar invested in education produces a $7 economic return. Westrom said Pawlenty has not proposed any education funding cuts for the biennium, but that DFL leaders have said their plan may call for funding cuts to balance their budget proposal.

The Stevens County building project was discussed briefly. The lawmakers co-signed a letter asking the county board to reconsider moving ahead with the project now because of the economy.

Referring to a meeting last week that drew more than 500 people -- almost all opposed to the $15 million project -- Ingebrigtsen said that "when 600 people show up at a meeting, it's an issue."

He added that he was aware the project had been postponed for 90 days and that while state lawmakers had no power to affect a decision, he hoped for a positive resolution. Westrom said lawmakers could help by reviewing out-of-date laws that might streamline what is required of law enforcement.

"The reality is, what's a practical solution," he said.

University of Minnesota, Morris Chancellor Jacquie Johnson expanded on the issue of operating more efficiently and looking at ways to do things differently, and Ingebrigtsen took it further by raising the idea of regionalizing local government, law enforcement, fire protection and school districts.

"Tough issues," he said, "but it may be time."